The Original Superhighway: The Missouri River
By Brett Dufur
Excerpted with permission from his book
& Clark's Missouri, available from
In 1804, the land we now know as Missouri was
incalculably inaccessible to travel. The Missouri River
flowed like a brushstroke of good fortune and fate for the indigenous
peoples and wildlife to be found there. That place was the Pekitanoui,
or River of the Big Canoes.
The river and land were connected. The
river brought life. Rivers created habitat by flooding the lands seasonally,
which created a biologically rich stew that supported a multitude of flora
and fauna. Imagine a river valley teeming with life, with buffalo, black
bear, elk and deer. It was a veritable Garden of Eden.
For the explorers and the generations of pioneers to follow, that river
was to become the United States’ original superhighway: the Missouri River.
It was a portal so important to the 19th century that
transportation, commerce and communication were to be changed forever.
But for many people today, rivers are good for only so many things, like
making a painting beautiful, or serving as a wonderful foreground to frame a
setting sun. In essence, rivers are scenic, but most people can essentially
take them or leave them.
Today, it’s impossible to put ourselves in the proper state of mind to
imagine a scene from the year 1804. Despite the fact that the river valley
had been inhabited by Native Americans for centuries, and had been explored
by the French Canadians for the better part of a century, Lewis & Clark were
largely entering terra incognita. Perhaps today we just know too much to be
able to appreciate the palpable mysteries that reached beyond the explorer’s
gaze. Theirs was a world of unknown lands—where lifetimes of discoveries
From Flintlocks to Stealth Bombers in 200 Years
Today, exploration of the unknown has largely been
replaced with information saturation. We live in an age
obsessed with information. We are swimming in the
deep end of a pool full of knowledge. Any random search on the Internet for
"Missouri River" or "Rocky Mountains" brings up a quarter of a million
entries. We seem to have explored and measured all things, from the world’s
tallest mountain to the deepest blackness of the ocean.
In 200 years, we have also seen technology progress from the Corps’
single shot flintlock to today’s Stealth bombers. A cell phone can instantly
put us in touch with anyone, anywhere. Television programs of even
questionable merit instantly broadcast to more than 70 countries.
Whereas the notes that became the original Lewis & Clark journals were
not published for eight years, visitors to modern-day reenactments on
replicas of Lewis & Clark’s keelboat expect daily photographs and journal
updates on the crew’s website (http://lewisandclark.net).
And so it is literally impossible for our minds to fathom the realities
of Lewis & Clark’s world. One historian wrote that then-president Thomas
Jefferson lived in a 3-mile-an-hour world, where information traveled by
horseback and no faster.
Theirs was a world where some maps were like pages out of a coloring book—largely
blank sheets with defined edges, with lots of white space in the middle. Our
continent east of the Mississippi River was already colored in. But heading
west of the Mississippi River, that map was waiting for William Clark to
fill it in.